Vintage collectibles that aren't as valuable as you might think

One of the most frustrating parts of being an antiques dealer, appraiser, or auctioneer is dealing with people who think their stuff is worth more than it is.

"It's very difficult to tell someone their stuff isn't worth anything", says Matthew Quinn of Quinn's Auction Galleries. "A lot of times I'll just say to somebody 'This is worth more to you than somebody else.' It can be very awkward."

Here are a few examples of collectibles most people think are worth more than reality says they are.

  1. Collectible plates: For decades, companies like The Franklin Mint and the Bradford Exchange aggressively marketed their limited-edition, heirloom-quality collectible plates through ubiquitous newspaper and magazine ads. And people bought them, meticulously holding onto the original boxes and certificates of authenticity in the hope that one day they would be worth a lot of money. That didn't happen.
  2. Vintage Playboy issues: A copy of the first issue of Playboy, featuring Marilyn Monroe from December 1953, recently sold on eBay for $2,000. After that, there's a steep drop-off. Copies from just five years later are worth less than $10 each. A complete collection of every issue except for the first one is worth less than the first one. A lot of six issues from 1967 recently sold for just $1.29.
  3. Old Bibles: Literary publicist Victor Gulotta, also a noted manuscript collector who sold his Longfellow collection to Harvard back in 2001, says that people are continually disappointed by the complete lack of value that old Bibles generally have. "The Bible is the most printed book throughout history, and also one of the best-preserved," he said. "They don't get thrown out -- or even read. They collect dust in a corner and don't get damaged. Because they're so well-preserved, there are many surviving copies. Some of them are beautiful 19th century books that have been passed down through the generations and there's just very little demand for them." Much older Bibles, he notes, can have value -- but most are tucked away in institutions. Chances are, your family Bible isn't worth anything as a collectible.
  4. Vintage encyclopedias: Like old Bibles, the expensive, richly-bound encyclopedia sets that were a stable of intellectual families for decades are also generally of no value. "I just had somebody stop by my house and he wanted to sell me these old encyclopedias from his great-aunt's house," says Gulotta. "He was convinced they were worth a lot of money but the reality is that no one wants them." The problem? They were mass-produced, take up more shelf space than most collectors would like, and, because they're compendiums of second-hand information, they have little historical interest. And don't even try selling them on eBay: the shipping costs greatly exceed their value, meaning that you're unlikely to find a buyer even if you list the set with a one-cent minimum.
  5. Vintage Wheaties boxes: Trygve Olsen says that he "collected Wheaties boxes growing up, under the theory that they were sports collectibles and I could make a mint selling them when I grew up. Now that I am, I have bins of old cereal that I can't get rid of." He has Wheaties boxes featuring stars including Bret Favre, Michael Jordan, Kirby Puckett, and Walter Payton, but has so far been unable to find a buyer.
  6. Arrowheads: Artist and industry expert Pablo Solomon said in an e-mail that a huge percentage of Native American arrowheads on the market are fakes with no value, but even experts have trouble telling the difference. "One of the toughest things is telling someone that the arrowheads that they inherited from grandad may be fakes," he says. "My rule now is -- if I did not find it -- it probably is fake."
  7. Sports cards from the 1980s and 1990s: Baseball cards from the 1950s can be worth a fortune -- because so few kids saved them, and every baby boomer has a story about his mother throwing out his collection. By the 1980s, the market for early baseball cards was heating up -- and many people assumed cards from the 1980s would appreciate in value too. But the fact that people thought that would happen virtually assured that it wouldn't: cheap cards were produced in massive quantities, and everyone who bought them stored them meticulously to preserve their condition. Consequently, they're not at all rare. A lot of 30 Roger Clemens cards recently sold on eBay for one cent, and an unopened 1989 Topps football wax pack also fetched just a penny.
  8. Newspapers from major historical events: The problem? Too many people saved them. A copy of the July 22, 1969 New York Times celebrating the Moon Landing recently failed to garner any bids -- with a starting price of just $5.95. But if you go back far enough -- before people were saving newspapers with any regularity -- prices rise. An 1862 copy of the Daily Richmond Examiner that includes a report on the Battle of Shiloh recently brought $487.
  9. National Geographic magazines: Prior to 1898, when Alexander Graham Bell took over as its president and ramped up marketing efforts to reach the masses (Bell invented the ever-so annoying subscription tear-out card that is a staple of magazines to this day), National Geographic was read only by academics and the Society's wealthy benefactors. Very early issues of the magazine may have some value, but even issues from the 1940s can be had at flea markets for a few cents. Dealers have been known to rip out the back covers for the ads and sell those individually, and the maps sometimes have value.
In order for something to be collectible, it needs two things: scarcity and demand. What determines rarity is not how many copies of something were made but how many were saved in pristine condition. Tammy Kahn Fennell of says that a good rule for deciding what is likely to be collectible is that "If everyone saved everything, nothing would be worth anything."

While hearing stories of worthless heirlooms can be depressing, there's definitely a silver lining: vintage Bibles, old issues of Playboy, and arrowheads of dubious authenticity can make for interesting decorative collections that won't break the bank.

Zac Bissonnette's book "College On a Dime" will be published by Penguin in the fall.
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